A world divided into brand and bulk advertising? After the hype and novelty of Internet advertising died down (at least according to some), big name, blue-chip brands sought to advertise on highly visible branded sites, while smaller companies tried to figure out the performance formula for successfully targeting niche and vertical audiences. Superficially, today's online media landscape seems to be the result. A finite number of cash-rich brand advertisers dominate ad space on household brand media sites such as the New York Times, while all other advertising on the Web is network-run or text advertising: bought in bulk and cheap.
But is this really true? Or are brand advertisers really foregoing some of their most attractive opportunities?Advertising on well-known sites is convenient for advertisers. No media buyer in the industry is going to get fired for buying a traditional destination site like the New York Times. In addition, the demographic composition (such as education, wealth, income etc.) of such a site's audience is always well researched in order to provide some objective data that can be used to explain its ad card rates. Those static audience properties feel reassuring to advertisers - but they leave other, more dynamic audience properties such as readers' reasons for being on those sites out of the picture, and thus bear little relationship to how open and easy to influence a media consumer is on that site.
No matter how rich or educated media consumers are, while they are consuming a traditional media site their minds are empathically not set on finding their next car, determining how to remodel their kitchen, or researching the most enticing itinerary for their upcoming trip through Italy. Rather, they are focused on spending whatever spare minutes they have on catching up with the latest news or reading a few bits of idle entertainment. Even car reviews on such sites are indiscriminately read by a wide audience, including those who don't need, own or want a car. Niche websites such as Car and Driver fall into that same destination site category: their typical readers are not people who want to buy a car right now, but mostly aficionados with strong convictions and little openness on car brands.
When it really is time to research vehicles, renovations, or vacations, the very same people who just caught up on news on the New York Times' site or read a BMW road test on Car and Driver leave those sites and go elsewhere: to Google. Next, to wherever Google directs them to solve the task at hand in the best possible way. While their static properties stay the same (they don't get younger or lose a college degree in the process), their behavioral properties have changed. They now want to be informed and influenced about something they declare in very specific terms to the sites they are visiting, both in the form of their search query and the specific pages they visit on the site.
Performance advertising targets audience intent, not demographics
Small advertisers, who lack corporate advertising budgets and depend on ad strategies with immediate impact, have understood this for a long time. They run their advertising across the web through targetable networks such as Google AdWords, and constantly work to refine their messaging and targeting to maximize the direct return on dollars spent. Performance advertisers display their message wherever and whenever a consumer discloses their current intent and therefore becomes visible as a prospective customer - a willing recipient of that advertiser's message. As more and more niche advertisers have grown to understand this, many niches have become quite competitive, and yield very attractive revenues for successful search content creators. Google's impressive corporate revenue development and resilience to recession-triggered crises serves as testimony to the market's growth and potential.
Search audiences are served at scale by a new breed of publishing
As performance advertising budgets grew, new ways of publishing online content emerged to provide the information-heavy search content requested by online audiences. In its latest incarnation (see the buzz around Demand Media's upcoming IPO), search metrics are being used to systematically identify the objective demand for content on the web.
Growing quality-only search content has been the mission of a few publishers, including the New York Times-owned content site About.com and our own site, Suite101.com. Our mission has been driven by the value quality generates for both our readers and writers (for whom our site also serves as a professional showcase). This quality focus matches the priorities of brand advertisers who, for good reasons, only want to associate with the high quality their customers expect of them as well.
Brand advertisers should embrace search audiences
Currently, brand advertisers sit mostly on the sidelines of the search-driven web, sometimes trying to buy cheap bulk CPM campaigns that end up in low-impact areas, such as second rate ad placements on webpages or on social network sites, and not in front of the eyes of information-hungry searchers.
There is a big, largely unutilized opportunity for brand advertisers to influence consumers not where they spend idle, passive time, but where they actively seek out advice with an open mind. Car companies should not spend all their resources advertising on traditional destinations and car aficionado sites - but also look at the sites that attract consumers when they are searching for car reviews, repair advice and fuel saving tips. Airlines should advertise on sites people visit when researching faraway trips - and so on. In these places, advertisers will reach the same caliber of people they currently target at the New York Times, but in a state of mind where they're receptive to their offerings and ad messages.
While this logic also supports the notion that brand advertisers should allocate a portion of their budget to SEM spending, it is also true that the type of marketing message a brand is looking to achieve - be it rich media or other unique ad formats and interactive capabilities - can only be achieved on quality sites driven by online search.
Accordingly, for advertisers, search-driven quality sites are a place to reach audiences when their intent to purchase is at its peak.